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Species Spotlight: The Red Wolf's Re-Discovery?

Driving through the dark at 5:30 am in August of 2019, I see the shape of an unknown canine dash in front of my headlights. I am winding my way through a neighborhood in Jamaica Beach (just adjacent to Galveston Island State Park) looking for the house where Dr. Kristen Brzenski (a mammalogist from Michigan Tech) and her graduate student Tanner Barnes will spend the morning on the lookout for a group of canines that, as of late, may be among the country's most famous.

The Red Wolf's re-discovery?>. An Article by Rusell A. Graves
The Red Wolf

Canon 1D Mark IV camera, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1/800 sec. @ f4, ISO 1000


Wedged between the Gulf of Mexico to my right and the expansive West Bay to the left, this little sliver of land is one of the multiple spots on the island where the mystery canines have been spotted. For years, most who saw these animals dismissed them as coyotes. One local, however, suspected they may be something more.

"Good morning, guys," Ron Wooten whispers jovially as he steps onto the deck from the stairs that lead from below. Like all the houses in this neighborhood, it sits on stilts about ten feet off the ground to help mitigate the damage that an occasional hurricane-produced storm surge may bring. For now, it's a fantastic perch from which we wait for the wild dogs.

"There they are," says Wooten just a few minutes after he arrives, pointing northeast as the sun starts to peek over the horizon. Three hundred yards away, an adult and three juveniles run and play in the paspalum prairie that snakes intermittently between a smattering of brush. "There are the wolves."

A Complicated History

The settling of North America brought about troubling days for the nation's indigenous species. Settlement for homes and slash-and-burn agriculture techniques led to habitat fragmentation or all-out destruction. Habitat loss, in turn, forced many species west while some disappeared altogether. So was the story of America's wolves.

While the gray wolf retreated to the mountains and plains, the red wolf headed to the coast and the big thickets of East Texas. In between, the highly adaptable coyote filled in the gap. Not quite as big as a grey wolf and not quite as small as a coyote, the shy red wolf occupied a low country niche and scavenged for rabbits, possums, and carrion in the swamps and bottomlands nearest coastal areas. A strictly Southern wolf, the species is the laid-back cousin of both the coyote and the wolf. In all, they lack the adaptability of the coyote and the aggressive pack mentality of the wolf.

The Red Wolf's re-discovery?>. An Article by Rusell A. Graves
The Red Wolf in Texas

Canon 1D Mark IV camera, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1/250 sec. @ f4, ISO 250


From a historical perspective, much of Texas's settlement is relatively new. As such, the original range of the red wolf in Texas is largely unknown due to their secretive nature and the thick underbrush and swamplands in which they inhabit. From the time the first Anglo settlers arrived in Texas, however, the mammal struck a chord in those who came in contact with them. In her memoir, early Texas pioneer Dilue Harris recorded her thoughts in December of 1833 while on the trail between Harrisburg and Stafford Landing (now the present-day Houston area).

"We were waiting for the wood men to return, when all of a sudden the wolves began howling. They surrounded the camp. Mr. Lytle drove the oxen back, and tied them to the cart. The wolves were after the venison. Father would have shot one, but said if he killed it the others would eat it and then kill the oxen. Our woodmen got back, and made a big fire, which scared the wolves. They ran a short distance, sat down, faced the cart, and barked and howled all night…."

The Red Wolf's re-discovery?>. An Article by Rusell A. Graves
A female red wolf in the Texas scrub.

Canon 1D Mark IV camera, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1/800 sec. @ f4, ISO 1000


While sentiments are changing, historically, our contemporary culture has always deemed wolves as problematic: something to be banished. From the literature of antiquity up until the 20th century, the wolf's role as an antagonist in our collective cultural lore is well documented. We've been at war with the "big bad wolf" for centuries.

"These were different."

Of all the people on Galveston Island, Ron Wooten may be the most familiar with the wild canines. By day, he's a public affairs specialist for the US Army Corp of Engineers, but he's also an outdoor communicator with a keen interest in Texas wildlife. When he joined us, he brought along a group of maps that he's kept over the years. On the maps, each dot corresponds with a date and canine sighting that he's crowdsourced from other islanders. From a glance, it appears that the animals use the undeveloped areas of the island and the seams of land that connect the open habitat.

"I first started seeing these animals in 2008," he says as he looks across the field while Brzeski and her graduate assistant look through binoculars to observe the animals. "I've seen plenty of coyotes before, and these didn't quite look like coyotes."

The Red Wolf's re-discovery?>. An Article by Rusell A. Graves
The mystery canines of Galveston Island.

Canon 1D Mark IV camera, Canon 500mm f4 lens + 1.4x, 1/60 sec. @ f5.6, ISO 2000


Wooten says that right after Hurricane Ike, the whole island was seemingly dead; homes and ecosystems devastated by the Category 2 storm. Upon his return home, he noted that birds and all the animals were almost gone save for coyotes and some free-ranging donkeys. While he was out walking his dog, a pack of canids killed his dog one evening. He could hear the animals in the brush, but since it was dark, he couldn't see them. Curiosity then set him on a ten-year quest to learn all he could about the isolated pack of canines.

In 2013, he got a tip from a fellow islander who had seen the pack. Wooten was able to photograph them at long last. Again, he didn't think they looked like "normal" coyotes or anything else he'd seen before.

"I started asking questions to biologists and started looking things up online to try to figure this out," he says. "When I found a couple of dead ones on the side of the road, I took some tissue samples that I knew we'd need if tests were ever run."

As serendipity would have it, Wooten watched a television documentary about wolves and reached out to David Mech, one of the wolf biologists featured. Mech thought Wooten was on to something and encouraged him to send the DNA samples off for testing. In late 2018, he enlisted the cooperation of Brzenski and by the end of the year, the results were in: the canines Ron tested are genetically half red wolf and half coyote. They are results that surprised many in the biological community.

"We don't know why the red wolf genes are so persistent in the group of individuals we've tested," says Dr. Bridgett VonHoldt, Associate Professor at the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University and the director of the North American Canine Ancestry Project. "One would think the effects of the hybrid swarm would influence the canine's genetics over time."

VonHoldt is referring to a concept called the hybrid swarm. Hybrid swarm is a scientific term used to describe the point at which hybridized individuals began to breed indigenous species and, over time, slowly breed pure genetics out of the population.

It works like this: as wolves were depleted from their range, coyotes moved in and filled the ecological void. When red wolves and coyotes breed, a hybrid (which is half coyote and half red wolf) is created. Over time, the hybrids breed back to coyotes since the coyotes are the area's most common wild canine. Eventually, the original wolf genetics become diluted generation after generation. With the discovery of coyote/wolf hybrids with a high percentage of wolf genetics, it seems as if the red wolf genetics weren't diluted as fast as suspected.

"In the last couple of years of our study, we've found lots of red wolf genetics in the wild - particularly in the areas of Texas and Louisiana where the red wolf was native. In fact, Texas has a higher density of red wolf genetics than anywhere else we've looked - especially in southeast Texas. As you travel northwest, we find a declining amount of red wolf genetics in coyotes."

For example, in 2019, a coyote raised as a pet in the panhandle town of Memphis, Texas, was discovered to be carrying red wolf DNA. According to VonHoldt's latest research findings in her paper titled, Persistence and expansion of cryptic endangered red wolf genomic ancestry along the American Gulf Coast, her research shows that the highest densities and most occurrences of red wolf DNA in coyotes appear in regions in which the red wolf was native. How the DNA got all the way up to the Panhandle is a mystery.

"It is a complex reproductive situation going on, and we're trying to figure out how all of this is happening," she says.

VonHoldt says that they are working to try to understand the ultimate origins of the red wolf and the coyote. There is some disagreement in the scientific community as to the origin of coyotes and red wolves and where the two species may have diverged.

In most genetic and phenotypic analyses, she says, the coyote and red wolf are closely related, albeit two distinct species. She thinks that the close relationship between the two species may have caused some confusion early on.

The Red Wolf's re-discovery?>. An Article by Rusell A. Graves
Jamiaca Beach, Galveston Island, Texas

Canon 1D Mark IV camera, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1/800 sec. @ f4, ISO 1000


"I think what we're seeing now in the coyote population is this complex result of having this idea that in the 1970s, all of the red wolves were captured from the wild. In assuming that all of them were captured for the well-intended notion of establishing a captive pack to try and save the species, you'd assume there is no other red wolf genetics on the landscape," she advises. "Realistically, I'm sure that there was suspicion that either hybrids or wolves were still out there. So over time, I think that those lingering genetics proliferated and is something that we're just now discovering."

Seeing is Believing?

While I am no classically trained mammalogist like Ron, I've spent countless hours in the field and have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of coyotes. These seven canines in the field before us, after long and measured observations, do vary from the various physical characteristics that I've seen in coyotes. They are lankier and a bit bigger than most coyotes; slick-haired; and most notably, they have large ears and white fur lines around their muzzle. They also congrats in bigger packs than what I've seen coyotes congregate. Having seen big packs of gray wolves in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park, the unknown canine's social interactions do resemble the denizens of the North country.

Ron points out each of these traits as we intently watch the group. His initial reactions to seeing these animals were correct - they are indeed different than a typical coyote.

Not as large and imposing as the big gray wolf, the red wolf is just a bit larger than its coyote cousins, and hence, it looks a lot like a coyote to the casual observer. When fully grown the red wolf males reach about 50 pounds (compared to about 33 pounds for an adult coyote). In length, the red wolf is about 30% larger than the coyote.

"But phenotypes can be deceiving," says Brzenski. "Just because these animals we're witnessing look different from typical coyotes doesn't mean they aren't coyotes."

"There is a lot of variation in the way coyotes look," she says. "That's why we're here working on this project. We want to find out what's going on genetically with these animals and try to find the extent of where these wolf/coyote hybrids exist."

On this visit, they plan to collect scat, hair, and tissue samples as well as deploy game cameras to document the canines as much as they can. Brzenski's work is part of a larger canine ancestry project that she's been working on for some time now.

In the published scientific paper Rediscovery of Red Wolf Ghost Alleles in a Canid Population Along the American Gulf Coast, Brzenski and her coauthors (including Wooten) were surprised to find the red wolf genetics, which was thought to be long since extinct in the wild. A discovery, they believe, shows a ray of hope in conserving one of the nation's most endangered mammals.

"Through interbreeding with coyotes," they explain, "…this endangered genetic variation has persisted and could represent a reservoir of previously lost red wolf ancestry. This unprecedented discovery opens new avenues for innovative conservation efforts, including the reintroduction of red wolf ghost alleles to the current captive and experimental populations."

Before Brzenski's paper was published, it was conventionally accepted that the red wolf had long been extirpated from Texas and the rest of the southern woods and swamps it called home. By the early 1980s, the secretive species was thought to be completely gone from its range.

Therein lies the conundrum: It seems that the red wolf was so secretive and seemingly rare that it's been hard to understand how many red wolves once existed and where they roamed. Some in the scientific community used to believe that the red wolf is a hybrid of the gray wolf and coyote, but additional evidence produced in the 1970s proved otherwise. Essentially, the red wolf disappeared before anyone paid any attention to them.

Until the early 1980s, wildlife biologists would roam formerly inhabited wolf country in East Texas and use a siren to elicit a howl from local wolf packs. By 1984, the howls went silent. The book The Mammals of Texas states that, after the mid-1960s, "…all of the recent, so-called red wolves we have examined from eastern Texas have proven to be large coyotes. It appears that in Texas, red wolves are now extinct."

During that same time, Austin College professor Howard McCarley hypothesized that many of the animals people thought were red wolves were wolf-coyote hybrids. He, too, believed that the red wolf was slowly being nudged out by an ever-changing landscape and the breeding aggressiveness and adaptability of the coyote.

In the 1970s, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service began an all-out campaign to save the red wolf. In four years, from 1974 to 1978, more than 400 red wolves were trapped in Texas. Once these individuals were genetically tested for purity, 17 wild specimens remained. According to writer Russell Roe, these individuals make up the base population from which breeding programs were initiated and are the ancestors of all red wolves alive today.

As of now, only a single population of known red wolves still roam the wild in a five-county area on the Albemarle Peninsula of eastern North Carolina. Even those wolves are in trouble. Once numbering just over 100 individuals, now there are only about 30. The decline is thought to be due to the unintended consequence of night hunting for coyotes being legalized.

The Red Wolf's re-discovery?>. An Article by Rusell A. Graves
Female Red Wolf

Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon 17-35mm f4 lens, 1/640 sec. @ f8, ISO 1250, Camera Trap


While it's been nearly 40 years since a genetically pure red wolf was confirmed in Texas, the re-discovering of such a high percentage of red wolf genetics offers a glimmer of hope to some that somehow the red wolf has hung on against the odds. In the world of red wolves, there seem to be more questions than answers. Brzenski says that's the fun part of science: trying to solve ecological mysteries like the one Wooten discovered in the unlikeliest of places.

The whole affair brings up some complicated legal questions as to whether or not the mysterious animals are eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act and what that would look like in an area as populous as Southeast Texas where the red wolf genetics appear to run the deepest.

"What does all this mean for conservation," she rhetorically asks. "Will it call for the restoration of this unique animal on the landscape? Or maybe there is no next step for conservation. I don't know…"

"Those are the questions we'll have to ask."


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